Spring Break: Venice to Gimmelwald

9 May

Now that I have time to begin recounting my spring break adventures, let’s start at the beginning.

Madeline and I headed to the Gare de Bercy to get our night train to Venice. When we arrived at our compartment, we discovered that it was overflowing with an entire extended family, and decided to install ourselves in the next compartment over instead, which was almost empty, save for an American girl. After introducing ourselves, we discovered that the girl was actually from the University of San Diego and taking classes at the ACCENT Center. What? Talk about a small world.

Even more incredibly, we also realized that she and I had both been on the exact same trip to Chartres back in February, and yet neither of us remembered seeing the other. Crazy.

Fortunately, I managed to sleep reasonably well on the train since I hadn’t slept much the night before. When we arrived in Venice, we walked out of the train station and ate breakfast on the front steps, overlooking the Grand Canal.

We didn’t have a map, so we figured we would just try to wander around in the general direction of St. Mark’s. I suppose we underestimated how much of a labyrinth Venice really is. I can’t count how many times we came to a dead-end on the edge of a canal. At any rate, it was a fun way to explore the city. I was amazed at how the canals really do take the place of roads, full of boats making deliveries to businesses and so forth. And of course, the stereotypical gondolas and their goofy-looking drivers.

I thought Venice was beautiful, but I was very turned off by the crowds of tourists and the overall super-touristy atmosphere. Once we got to the Rialto Bridge, it was difficult to walk anywhere because of the crowds. I suppose it being Easter weekend didn’t help things. The “tourist alley” between the Rialto and St. Mark’s was ridiculous. However, the views across the Grand Canal were just breathtaking.

Since we had booked a hotel in Mestre, the modern part of Venice across the lagoon, we had to take a train back in the afternoon to check in and drop off our stuff. Since our morning walk had been tiring, we also took a cat nap before returning to the old city. We returned to St. Mark’s in the late afternoon (we hadn’t been inside earlier), but unfortunately we discovered that it wasn’t open to visitors because it was Good Friday. Instead, we went up the Campanile for awesome views of the city.

While waiting in line for the Campanile, I was approached by a Spanish woman who asked me if she could buy tickets for St. Mark’s Basilica from the Campanile ticket booth – in Spanish. I understood what she said, but I could only manage a “Si” before thinking to tell her that the church was closed. Oops. If I only had a few more seconds, I would’ve said, “La iglesia está cerrada.” At any rate, this event begs the question — why did she assume I spoke Spanish? Do I look Spanish?

That night, we got pizza at a restaurant somewhat near St. Mark’s. It’s hard to tell if it was “authentic” or not (although the well-dressed Italian waiters create the façade of authenticity), but it tasted good enough. I feel like pizza isn’t particularly hard to perfect, though — so you don’t need to go to Italy to get the best. Our dessert, however, was Italian food at its best — gelato! I got tiramisu and coffee flavors, which actually provided a caffeine boost. That’s good stuff.

The next morning we took the train to Milan, then changed to a train towards the lakes. We were a bit annoyed by the supplemental reservation fee for high-speed Italian trains, which was much higher than the supplement for French trains. Anyway, the train ride along Lake Como was lovely. We got off at Varenna to take the ferry to Bellagio.

This was easily one of my favorite places in Italy. Taking the ferry was lots of fun, admiring the towering mountains around the lake and the little Mediterranean villages. Once we got to Bellagio, we walked along the shore towards some kind of massive lakeside park / garden belonging to an old villa. I think we were supposed to pay to get in, but we found an unguarded path around the back that let us get in without paying. But hey, that’s their fault for making it so easy to get in!

There was a Japanese garden with red maple trees, rose bushes, and all sorts of beautiful flowers. There was a gazeebo with a shiny blue dome that I vowed to convert into my house. It was gorgeous.

We returned to Varenna, explored the village a bit and then headed back to the train station to continue our journey. We had a while to wait, so we killed time by playing “This or that?”, a game that would come to occupy much of our free time during the week.

We got on the train and headed north into the Alps. The warm sunshine gave way to some menacing clouds, but fortunately no rain. We arrived in the small town of Tirano near the Swiss border and walked towards our hotel, enjoying the 360-degree view of mountains. Upon arrival at our hotel, however, we discovered that it was closed. What? We didn’t want a repeat of the Bayonne incident.

I decided to call the hotel, and while I wasn’t hopeful, I was overjoyed when a woman answered and said she would come down to open the door for us. It was certainly an odd place — when we got there, the woman’s family was eating dinner at the hotel restaurant. We had to use the back door to get in and out. We found a supermarket in town and bought a little dinner of ham and cheese sandwiches and chocolate cookies.

We ate dinner in our hotel room while watching Italian TV — a very dramatic, very Italian “Deal or No Deal” as well as a benefit concert for the victims of the L’Aquila earthquake.

The following morning, we took the “Bernina Express” train across the Swiss border. We climbed through the Alps, passing by the breathtaking Lago di Poschiavo before hitting snow. The snow-covered forests were beautiful and, before long, we were even above the treeline, crossing a landscape that looked out-of-this-world.

This other-wordly landscape was interrupted by a few cross-country skiers. Looked like they were having lots of fun. For a slightly more in-depth account of the day’s journey, check out my most recent 12 of 12.

After a brief stop in St. Moritz where I used some very minimal German to order lunch, we began descending through the Alps in the direction of Zurich. The train rides were wonderfully scenic — Swiss villages, farmland, castle ruins, churches, towering mountains, lakes, rivers… what more could you ask for? The architecture was definitely distinct from that in the Italian portion of Switzerland, not to mention the people — more subdued, naturally.

From Zurich we continued on to our final destination of Lucerne, a very nice historic town on the edge of a lake. It definitely had a “green” vibe to it, with lots of hookah-smoking loungers, very small cars, and a CoOp supermarket. Oh, and the smell of marijuana. We had a picnic by the lake for dinner, and returned to our hostel for the night. I was awakened when one of our Kiwi roommates began snoring loud enough to break the sound barrier, but he eventually stopped.

All in all, Madeline and I both got a good impression of Lucerne — it seems to epitomize the laid back lifestyle of the Swiss. They are definitely a quirky people, what with their coockoo clocks, extremely kitschy decorating habits, and their ridiculous variety of German (who the heck says “Grüezi”?), but they seem generally easy-going and happy. I only wish I could have communicated more in German and less in English, but the French-to-German phrasebook I picked up at Monoprix before the trip didn’t help that much in the end.

The next day, I captured this shot of Lucerne’s old town before returning to the train station:

Our train ride towards Interlaken brought us through some more idyllic Swiss countryside — cows, green pastures, waterfalls, and some beautifully pristine lakes. The most beautiful of them all was the Brienzersee, just east of Iterlaken. Its incredible blue-green color was just unreal (and unfortunately didn’t come out in my photos). It was weird returning to Interlaken, the first place on our trip I already knew. Although I was there 2 years ago, I remembered every mountaintop.

From Interlaken, we took a train to Lauterbrunnen, windows open and enjoying the fresh air as we climbed into the mountains. The view of the Lauterbrunnen Valley was amazing — huge snow-covered mountains in the distance, giant cliffs on either side riddled with massive waterfalls. It reminded me a bit of Yosemite. We took a bus to Stechelberg and then a skier-filled lift to Gimmelwald. The lift dropped us right off in this little Swiss mountainside village.

Man, what a beautiful place.

The views of the Alps from Gimmelwald were absolutely overwhelming — the mountains virtually occupied our entire field of vision, and it was impossible to look in any direction without seeing massive snow-covered peaks. In fact, even Gimmelwald had some early spring snow left on the ground, although the weather was perfectly sunny and comfortably in the 60s. We checked into our hotel, the very rustic and creaky, wooden Hotel Mittaghorn run by a slow-moving Swiss octogenarian named Walter. We felt bad for the guy, all alone…

We spent the afternoon walking around Gimmelwald, enjoying the beautiful vistas around every corner.

Gimmelwald is a place frozen in time. Tourism has not quite encroached upon its supreme tranquility. We wanted an afternoon snack, but since there are no convenience stores to speak of, we visited “Esther’s Shop,” which was part of “Esther’s Inn.” We expected a room full of food, but when we climbed the stairs leading to the shop, we were met by Esther herself at the top of the stairs. She showed us a small shelf covered with her goods — jam, cookies, things like that. She assured us that she made everything herself.

We bought some sort of shortbread cookies and ate them on Gimmelwald’s swingset — certainly the most picturesque place I’ve ever… swung. We then walked through the village, passing by farmers in traditional Swiss garb, some fellow explorers, and some local cats enjoying the sunshine. We sat down on a bench to admire the view when we noticed a wild mountain goat running up the hill in front of us.

The goat passed literally 10 feet away from us on his way up the mountain.

We returned to our hotel for dinner, which Walter prepared for us. It was a delicious and filling plate of rice, shrimp, and mixed vegetables, followed by a fruit and ice cream combo for dessert. After dinner, Walter joined us in the dining room and began a conversation. The communication was a bit difficult, however, since Walter’s English was not perfect (nor his hearing). It was somewhat awkward, but we felt bad because the guy obviously must be lonely. He’s been working at this hotel for almost 40 years. At any rate, we thanked him for the delicious dinner and retired.

We fell asleep serenaded by the “baa”s of the sheep next to our hotel.



Italian Lakes and Alps

Tirano to St. Moritz

St. Moritz to Lucerne

Lucerne to Gimmelwald



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